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Duncan Exley is the former Director of the Equality Trust, a charity founded by the authors of The Spirit Level (Penguin, second edition 2010) to address economic inequality in the UK. A former student of economic and social history, he has had a long career in leading campaigning organisations and projects that use research to change government policy and corporate practice. Despite being the son of a shop assistant and a `pit electrician', Duncan has been described as part of `the establishment'. He tweets as @Duncan_Exley.
Why do some people get to achieve aspirations that were unattainable for their parents while others don’t seem to get the opportunities they deserve? That is the critical, far-reaching question at the heart of this energetic, enlightening book. Based on fascinating – and often heart-rending - case studies of UK citizens, it explores to what extent children are offered opportunities to attain widely-held aspirations (to have a job you love, your own home and a rewarding relationship/family), what barriers are in their way, and whether decision-makers are truly prepared to take measures to remove those barriers. Through personal experience and interviews with a diverse set of individuals, the author notes that most children from working class backgrounds have at best a couple of hours of career guidance. People stumble into jobs, or end up down career cul-de-sacs they should never have taken. The findings don’t make for happy reading overall. While a working class kid might break through one barrier and get to university on merit, on arrival “the cultural codes of the elite are opaque and baffling”, and it’s often the same experience for those who break into traditionally middle class professions. Indeed, the author discovers that today people from middle-income backgrounds are more likely to slide down the scale. So what’s the solution to this depressing state of affairs? The author notes several key factors that need to be addressed. For example, social desegregation in educational institutions: “schools should be required to ensure that their intake is at least approximately reflective of the population of the surrounding local authority.” Another key factor would be to take away “opportunity tolls” i.e. children not being able to attend certain schools because of uniform costs, or jobseekers being unable to afford to travel to interviews. This engaging book makes for sobering reading, but also offers hope through the author’s ideas for rebalancing society to benefit the many.